Artistic goals and fulfillment (or: How to focus, a self-help thread)

Are you (or have you been) in my current situation?

Yes actually I think I’ve shared my frustration with this community in the past…my circumstances in life made it difficult to record carefully planned, cohesive projects. I hate the feeling of missed potential.

Currently I still battle this but am really well supported by my partner and an enthusiastic core of fans & friends who help me. I feel motivated to overcome personal disappointment to continue creating.

Do you set yourself a goal when creating music?

Yes, but I’ve benefitted by recalibrating my thinking on the subject. My first goal is to demonstrate growth…this can manifest in many ways: working more quickly on a part of the process, improving skill, improving fidelity in the signal paths i frequently use, learning a neglected feature of some tools. I try not to work on them all at once, just build on things naturally.

That approach fits well with my second guiding objective: to demonstrate honesty. If i’m incapable of executing an idea i try and fail and still find a way to use the result. Also if I’m keen on using a particular tool that I need time to learn, i simply wait until I’ve made time to teach myself the ropes. When it’s obvious I won’t have time or lack sufficient interest in the method i’ll readily abandon it (or sell the piece of gear / kill the urge to buy the piece).

Do you set yourself a goal…a genre, a form, something else?

Always! I set off with a clear goal but never limit myself once the journey of recording begins. If I deviate too much from the intended theme/genre/process i initially had in mind…I will record the pure expression (corruption?) anyway and save for a new project where that track might fit perfectly.

How do you choose your focus?

My mood and time contraints dictate what I do each day. But to be more proactive and focused, for most of the past year I kept a to-do list while working on several projects simultaneously. Working on only one feels a bit paralyzing!

Currently the taks list is managed with Github Projects and as new opportunities and ideas pop up I add them. When tasks or whole releases are complete then I remove them (If anybody wants to see, or is curious about my current focus just ask)

How do you manage your love for different kinds of music, when it comes to your own music making?

I make them all and blend them all. Loving many styles is normal and if I’m being honest with myself, I have to try the ones I’m passionate about. I look to nature for inspiration … producing diverse and wildly divergent forms is totally natural and I’ve spent a ton of time meditating on the fact that the creator is unparalleled in this respect. Too tight a focus on one defining thing would be personally limiting and also deprive listeners from seeing me for who I truly am.

It helps me see things I wouldn’t otherwise have noticed when I compare contrasting styles made by the same artist. Usually my appreciation for their work increases.

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In one of my classes, students all breadboarded a basic synth similar to nic collins’ 40106 schematics. the assignment that followed was to make a piece of music—any style, genre, any kind really—that showcased that synth. The entire piece could be nothing but sounds made with this extremely gritty and not always predictable square wave generator. Students made a really wide variety of pieces (harsh noise to techno); listening to the whole “album” if you will you got a sense of just how many artistic ends could be achieved through a breadboard and $1 in parts. (I should point out that none of the students in the class were “composers” nor producers in any traditional sense, we had an anthropologist in there for example, and we had a couple very skilled performers of particular non-electronic genres but who had never “composed” their own music before)

The point being, if the goal is to complete things musically, pretty much everyone posting on this board has far too much stuff at hand, and most of it is not helping. You could make an entire piece of music just from banging on a baking tray you find in your kitchen thru some simple analog feedback and distortion (that’s not metaphorical, that so happens to have been our kitchen 3 weeks ago!)

But to feel like one is doing anything musical with $1 in breadboard parts or a baking pan (or a stradivarius or a strat or whatever) requires that the performing composer listens—listening is really where the key is at, listening to past music, listening to the fragments of recordings that one has made, cultivating new ways of listening. Ok I have a recording of square waves and square pans… which bits of that 15 minute recording do I want to listen to again, if any? Cut 'em up. Which bits might be put in dialogue with each other? Reorganize the cut bits around. Listen back—how does this make me feel? (hopefully mighty real) Does it sound/feel incomplete? Listen in my imagination to what kind of sound might move towads that feeling of completion.

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Can I study with you?!?

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This is a great thread, and you’ve raised a lot of interesting issues. I tend to oscillate between lots of music-making and no music-making (where I’m currently at, but hoping to change that over the coming holidays!). I’ve found the microprojects of the disquiet junto (https://disquiet.com/2013/04/25/disquiet-junto-faq/) and naviar haiku (https://www.naviarrecords.com/about/naviar-haiku/) to be really helpful in committing to musical decisions and saying that something is “finished”. And they’re great communities.

dl

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I hadn’t heard of that before - thanks!

Are you (or have you been) in my current situation?
Absolutely I am! I have actually been back in this very frustrating routine of coming up with ideas and setups at work and being angry at the fact I was unable to try them immediately, and then coming back home and either having lost the motivation or excitement to try them, or trying them and being back to a very generic and stale “techno” beat asking myself “now what?”

Do you set yourself a goal when creating music? A genre, a form, something else?
For the moment my goal is turning the machines and Ableton, maybe I should work on something more intentional than that because it may be the reason why I’m so frustrated with lack of purpose. I’ve been asking myself all kinds of questions, should I work on projects based on equipment used? Genre? Or some deeper theme?
I am wondering if I should adopt a more craftsman-like approach to music making, having a set of tools and focusing on the process of making something regularly and not on the outcome. “Every week, I will make a chair”, you know what a chair looks like, you know what you have to do to make one, you can put your own spin on it but it has to have certain parts to be called a chair. It can help a lot with decisions making.
Having one or two setups I know I like to make music with, picking one for the session, recording if I come up with something I like and turning it into a track in the DAW, and doing so by always following the same process to get better at it and limiting the number of decisions to make.

How do you choose your focus?
I’m really bad at this but I think the best thing to do is to let your curiosity guide you. Most of the times my ideas are technical in the sense that I like to try to answers questions like “what happens when I plug this into this?”. I think Glia does it right by keeping a to do list and I should definitely do the same. Maybe try starting a “to try list” or a “questions to answer” list?
Anyway, I believe that the anwer to your questions becomes clearer when doing a lot of music and trying many different genres, so you can learn what you enjoy doing, and what you’re good at. That should be your focus.

How do you manage your love for different kinds of music, when it comes to your own music making?
I think this links to the previous answer, you should let your curiosity take control for a while, not limit yourself in anyway, try anything and everything. And after a while, what you’re good at and enjoy doing will emerge naturally.

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I can relate to this. Far too much. I get exhausted just by thinking how long I could write about this subject. It would be my memoirs.

Anyway, lately there’s a thought spinning in my head that I find both provoking and inspiring. What if I have put too much emphasis on me the artist as an individual force. Maybe I have spent too much time thinking about my art as a way to “realize myself”, to assert myself, to fight for the spotlight, to be recognized. Maybe the idea of expressing myself has just been me serving my ego. (However, my ego remains deeply dissatisfied, so I’m not doing a very good job.)

Maybe we/I can find a stronger motivation/focus/discipline if we see the opportunity to contribute and make something for the benefit of others. If we see the opportunity to serve. To write a song that comforts a friend in a time of loss, or write an upbeat dancetrack for a party with your friends. To be in dialogue with the world around us, rather than standing up to hold a monologue.

I will continue to think about this. But I wonder if it doesn’t relate to Brian Eno’s idea of scenius Vs genius. Being a part of a community is important.

Here are few other thoughts/strategies that might or might not work for you:

All new ideas are new combinations of existing ideas/concepts. It’s making the new connection that is creative. If we stick too close to the center of genres we will be “mere stylists”. The greatest talent we have is our love for the art. Look at having diverse interests as your strength, your chance at offering new, unique combinations.

Finishing and shipping the work is the art. It’s a skill, a habit that we need to learn. “If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t count” to quote Seth Godin. I understand that not all people agree on this, use this credo if it works for you.

Set yourself up for an easy win. Make the smallest possible project. And finish it within a given time limit. Let’s say one hour. Or half. It won’t be your greatest work of art, but it will be an achievement because you finished it. Disquiet Juntos are great for this too.

Invite outside pressure. State what you are going to do and commit - so that you won’t fail in public. Book the venue for your release party in advance. Then force yourself to make the album.

Make an evil promise. If I don’t finish my EP by date X I will have to send a donation to the bad guys’ party. (I have never dared to do this, but I would work very hard not see the extreme right in my country getting my money).

… oh well, I could go on. Here are a few books I recommend.

Seth Godin “The Practise - Shipping Creative Work”
Steven Pressfield - “The War of Art”
Austin Kleon - "Steal Like an Artist

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I wrote a bunch but eh it all boiled down to:

fuck it, just be you.

accept that a lot of the time (most of the time) it’s not an easy or glamorous process to create. accept that not everyone will like what you make. who cares? why are you making in the first place? and don’t get me started on genre- it’s only ever a crude approximation anyway. fuck it, make what YOU love.

forget about the gear- stop looking outward for the secret sauce, because trust me it’s not there. look inward. music is a form of communication, as you put it- so what are you trying to say with yours?

a lot of the time when musician friends of mine struggle with productivity, it’s because they are sort of tapped out on emotions/life experiences they want to express. so they force it and force it, and it almost never works. if you feel like you’re forcing it for too long, step away, get some new life experiences, then come back and see what happens.

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/end thread here please :slight_smile:

Well, if they can keep publishing Selfhelp-books we can keep dwelling on the subject. :wink:

n-So’s comment echoes what @madeofoak said in his Sound&Process episode. He recognized that everything he made, no matter the genre, would sound like him. I find that a liberating thought that frees us from the looking at ourselves as a “playlist-friendly brand” for dinner with friends. We’re complex, we can hold multiple emotions.

I also remember a Joni Mitchell interview in Mojo from … 1999? She said something like: It used to take a great composer, a great lyricist, a great singer to do a record, now everybody thinks they can do it all themselves. (The irony of course being that she could.)

There’s an awful lot of hats we force ourselves to wear. Also to be arrangers, producers, mixers, masterers, A&R, label managers, distributors, marketers… Just because you’re creative doesn’t mean you were designed to take on all of that organizing.

Chop wood, carry water.

I like that too. It sounds like a practise. A habit. Keep the wheels in motion. Don’t question everything. Just keep at it. Paint each piece. Later curate and select the exhibition.

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I like all the responses to this thread, they’ve been very helpful and generous. Thanks, everyone! I like the variety of ideas, practices, and approaches.I think it’s something I will bookmark and revisit frequently over the next few weeks.

What if I have put too much emphasis on me the artist as an individual force. Maybe I have spent too much time thinking about my art as a way to “realize myself”, to assert myself, to fight for the spotlight, to be recognized. Maybe the idea of expressing myself has just been me serving my ego. (However, my ego remains deeply dissatisfied, so I’m not doing a very good job.)

Your quote above, @janglesoul, reminded me of some elements of Buddhist philosophy I’ve been getting back into recently, which points to this activity of self-making (and attachment to this self) as a critical contributor to people’s experience of suffering (whether in relation to their artistic practice or to life in general).

I think your idea of helping others is a great one! Compassion can really be healing.

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Really nice thread with very familiar problems and directions.
I once had a conversation about this with a friend that is also artist.
He said: If I give you €10.000 tomorrow for a finished track, will it be finished?

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This isn’t new, but it’s a comforting read.

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Jazz musicians spend their time learning the repertoire before they start writing their own compositions. ‘Be yourself’ is good advice, but I wouldn’t worry too much about that in the beginning stages of trying to create something. Making music with electronics is exciting since there are so many possibilities, but that can feel crippling for a lot of people. Spending time to analyze and emulate what you like is a very healthy practice that leads to new ideas.

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I’m 35. I started playing guitar when I was 12. On my next birthday, I will have been a songwriter for two thirds of my life. But I spent so many of those years draped in shame, guilt, self-doubt, and all the other emotions that accompany the commitment to being an artist. I know that you all know what I am talking about.

Right now, I am more artistically productive and fulfilled than I have ever been. I recorded music about 175 days this year, and practiced 5 days per week on average. I am proud of that, and not ashamed to say so. So many years have gone differently, and more than I’d care to admit flew by without a single recording. This thread is a good opportunity to think about why that is, in case it could be helpful to others. So, here we go?

  1. Sit down to write.

Stephen Pressfield said it best in The War of Art: Writing is easy—it’s sitting down to write that is the hard part.

This is so true, for me anyway. Making intentional time for music every day is so difficult. But if you’ll do this— if you’ll set aside a specific chunk of time in a consistent physical space that is consecrated to the task at hand— you almost can’t help but be productive. How many years did I waste waiting on The Muse? On “inspiration”?

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham whether he wrote every day or just when he was inspired. He replied that he only worked while inspired, but that fortunately inspiration struck him every day at nine o’clock sharp. Think about it.

Anything that you want to grow and flourish needs food, water, and love every day. Your art especially.

  1. Mind Your "In Breaths"

Others have said this, so I’ll keep it brief. Remember that you are expressing- exhaling, so to speak- when you make music. You are expending. You must also inhale. Watch movies, listen to music, go for a walk. Encounter phenomena which make you feel small. In short, expose yourself to things, situations, and people which require interpretation on your part. That is what making art is (for me); attempting to make sense of or express a reaction to the ineffable.

So breathe something in that baffles you.

  1. Don’t Quit

With art (and pretty much everything else), you can have so much success if you just show up every day and don’t quit. Ride the endless wave of elation and disappointment and joy and fear and don’t ever stop. Most people quit. Just hang in there for the long haul and you’re already most of the way there.

Look, if you only showed up for work two days a week, you’d get fired, right? Well, treat your art- your most sacred act- with at least as much respect as you give your day job.

  1. Find A Mentor

Which is to say, find someone that you want to be like and ask them to commit to a structured mentoring relationship for a set period of time. If you find an album you love, ask that person to teach you. They might say yes! Capping the commitment to a certain amount of time every week for a few months increases the likelihood in my experience. Approaching them with clear goals helps as well.

If you ask Jon Hopkins to teach you electronic music, you’re not being realistic. But if you ask him how he programmed the upper octaves on the Sub Phatty in the final two minutes of “Luminous Beings”, he very well may tell you. That’s what I mean by clear goals

  1. Decouple Creation and Judgment

There is a time to write, and a time to decide which things go in the “keeper pile” and which things were fun exercises that will remain private. They are not the same time. Write something, work on it until you feel good, then move on for a day or a week. Set a regular interval for evaluating your work. I often find that pieces I felt really great about are, when I return to them, not keepers. But also I’ll stumble upon something I don’t remember working on and hear something worth pursuing. The point is, Creator Brain and Editor Brain should not approach the same project on the same day. They are allies, but not partners, if that makes any sense.

Beware, this approach will make your art better at the expense of your personal comfort. You will leave material on the cutting room floor. Do it. Much the way that a film editor cuts shots the director and DP are personally attached to in order to make a better film, you will ditch sections, songs, entire projects, because Editor Brain is not satisfied. I could go on and on about this one, but will leave it here for now.

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I love this quote and it is something I say regularly—thank you for sharing here. It was nice to hear it again.

Also @mattlowery I enjoyed your thoughts and can definitely relate to them despite being in the process of committing to them. I’ve had a similar experience this year and can definitely say that a prepared/defined place and time to work on music regularly is super beneficial for me. Our musical timelines are similar, though I’m 40 and am still very much in the developmental phase of my practice and expression.

I would share this story from life and the wisdom I was gifted in my 20’s. I was fortunate to meet in my early 20’s a talented painter in his 70’s. His name was Dick Wray and I would recommend anyone interested search his work as it’s beautiful. I will proudly brag of my friend/mentor and share that over his career he achieved quite a few things: he had a solo show at The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in the 70’s (or 80’s) and Bukowski read at the opening; The Museum of Fine Arts Houston owns some of his work and displays it occasionally; and I believe that MoMA also owns one or two of his early pieces. I share this because I think it’s awesome but also to give weight to his words.

Call it serendipity, but I met Dick through my ex-wife who met him because he was a regular at the restaurant she waited tables at. When I met him we hit it off because I was young and driven to create and communicate and had many ideas about that and he enjoyed being able to chat with someone younger. He wasn’t your typical 70 year old—we usually hung out after my shift ended at 10pm and would talk until the wee hours of the morning. On top of educating me about painting and drawing and how to view art (I’m very much an acolyte of his in that regard—his influence was strong), we spoke at length of the “work” of art. Below are the gems he shared.

“Everyone has thousands of bad paintings in them. You have to work and get them out of you. Once you start getting them out, some good ones will pop out every now and then.”

Of everything he said this has stuck with me. The truth of it is so easy to see and many here have alluded to this phenomenon: creation involves work and requires that the creator invest time in their craft.

Dick worked as a carpenter his whole life and didn’t start making real money from his paintings until his 60’s.

I know your question wasn’t related to the commerce of creation, and this fact isn’t strictly about commerce either. It highlights the fact that he painted and exhibited for 50 years before his work was in a place that he had established a voice that otgers responded to and had built a following for. This can be picked apart for many reasons (painting vs music, pre-internet days, etc.), but please don’t ignore the fact that it demonstrates a lifetime commitment to a craft.

“Everyone is so quick to share what they’ve made. Some things just need to be made and thrown away.”

Here was talking about the tendency of young artists to believe that anything and everything they created should be for the purpose of exhibition and his point was that a lot of work is strictly for the artist. The work helps the artist develop their expression.

I think those are most applicable to the conversation at hand. As I said, Dick was a mentor I stumbled upon and didn’t waste the opportunity to learn from. One more anecdote and I think it’s appropriate, but Dick was fascinated by the line. His work was a study of it and he enjoyed seeing what other artists did with it. (His favorite was Matisse, whose line he said was “confident.”) Given the name of the forum, I thought this last fact would be fun to share.

Anyway, I hope this guidance shared with me is helpful to others. Thanks to all who are sharing their thoughts here. I’m enjoying reading them. I will end my very long post with my own thought—a response to the spirit of the OP, but not necessarily a specific question.

My recent breakthrough has been to check my ego. For some stupid reason, I get so caught up in the creation of a sound that I spend more time concerning myself with how it’s made rather than how it sounds. What @makamqore shared applies to what I’m trying to communicate here. I’ve found that by checking that part of my brain that thinks that the sounds that comprise a piece should be impressive to others and instead just focusing on how something sounds frees me to create and to pursue ideas as they come unencumbered by self-judgment.

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Hell yeah. Jeph Jerman made music just by rubbing rocks on the ground. And it was awesome!

His music is more about just the act of listening, or the intention and focus behind it. And certain things come out of it, like texture, its pace, etc. But a lot of his solo stuff is just exploring certain objects. So the gear truly doesn’t matter – at least I feel like he proved that to me, personally.

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One thing I’ve found helpful is taking your stuff to a new place and just committing to playing for a while. Like busking somewhere outside, or any space you don’t typically visit. Just start playing and try to play for a long time, longer than you usually play.

Sometimes if I can just get it out, the form will kind of shape itself. And changing my environment can help it come out.

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I split my time between two overarching creative disciplines - visual art, from which I make my living as an illustrator while also making a lot of personal work, and music, which I feel compelled to do and is important for my spiritual well-being, but which I have no aspiration to make money from. Both have their own set of mental and practical challenges.

I think for both disciplines something that is easy to overlook, especially as you get older, is simply PRACTICE. Setting aside a little time each day (perhaps early?) to explore a principle, to deepen an understanding of some small thing, to just get rolling. The warm up. I have to remind myself to do this, to draw in my sketchbook to explore my thoughts and expand my vocabulary, to test out some sound idea before applying in a context later.

My life as an illustrator comes with deadlines, which are a blessing, because the deadlines inherently override my doubts - things simply need to be finished, at whatever skill level I currently possess. Writing this now of course I realize what benefit it would be to set some firm deadlines in my music or personal art projects as well (assuming the goal is to have finished products)

I’ll echo @mattlowery’s mention of Stephen Pressfield’s “The War of Art” - it’s a good and motivating book, not because there are any surprising truths in it but because of how obvious it is - really all there is is to sit down and do the thing. Figure out what the thing is and then do it.

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100% agree. I think there’s something really valuable about reaching out to people when you find those things you really like in someone’s music, or the mix engineer if it’s in the mix, etc. I’ve done this maybe a dozen times and nearly universally people have gotten back to me with great little tidbits that have stuck with me. I think over time, I’ve realized, a small bit about what you enjoy in their music, followed by a pointed question about the specific thing you want to know about is key…pretty easy to find people’s emails. If the cold-call aspect of it is anxiety-inducing, start with people on this forum (they obviously want to talk about the art making process if they’re here!), find something in the releases category and ask them in the thread.

I’ve never had a mentor-type situation, definitely not anything with formalized parameters, but I do have a few long running email threads or local friends that I talk to about art making stuff somewhat regularly, and that’s super nice. I’m definitely of the camp “art is communication” and these types of communications of art between artists is probably my favorite aspect of that.


I think something that’s important to remember is that artistic development is not linear. Everything you create is not going to 100% of the time be “better” than the last thing (if you look at your favorite music, how often is it that the artist’s most recent record is your favorite?) And if you try something new, it’s gonna start out being hard (learning curve to jump over), the output is going to suck, and you’re not gonna know where you want to go with it. It’s all a balance…refine the things that have worked in the past, try new things and find out of that which you want to explore more, taking what you learned and applying that to the new path.

I think it’s very important to find ways to share things (either publicly through something like lines or with friends) that are rough and not quite there, or don’t have a larger context (yet). In my experience there’s kind of a sweet-spot to things where you’re interested in it in the short term as you’re figuring it out, then time passes where it becomes stale in some way or another (or you are burnt out on it), and then eventually you’re able to revisit and fit it in a larger context. It’s like gardening, you put the plants in the ground (record the thing), make sure to give them the proper nutrients (organize your archive, share with others to get some feedback and a sense of where you might want to go with it), and then eventually some will die because a deer got to them (this has become a silly metaphor lol), but some grow and you want to show them off!

That being said, some people can just churn out stuff and it’s fully-formed, mixed and ready to go on an album (of which they’ve released several in the past year), and sometimes I get anxious that I have so many loose ends going at once, but as long as I give myself room to breathe with those and continue to be creative, I try to trust that they’ll get finished when they are ready to.

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I’ve felt this for a while too. I relate to the hunter prototype, but I’d like to become more of a gatherer as that is more sustainable.

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